Thursday, January 04, 2007

Really Old Wine

Before New York Times wine critic Eric Asmiov and about 50 others sat down to drink wine bottled in 1846, one of the group, Fran├žois Audouze, warns: "No producer makes a wine to be drunk after 80 years. ... When a wine is older than that, it is generally not the result of a will but of an accident."

But Asimov is duly impressed:
The moment of truth came. The 1846 was poured carefully but generously by the wine stewards, who had opened five bottles. The labels looked almost new, no surprise there. The humidity in a good wine cellar will rot paper, so wineries rarely label bottles until they are ready for shipping. The corks looked fresh, too. With its older bottles, Bouchard replaces the cork every 25 to 30 years, sacrificing one bottle to top off the others, which keeps air from aging the wine more rapidly.

What can one say about a wine 160 years old? It was amber, browner than the 1939, but with wonderfully fresh aromas of lime, grapefruit, chalk and earth, and the slightest overlay of caramel. In the mouth it was vibrant with acidity that was remarkable in a wine this old.

Tasting it blind, I would have guessed it to be 100 years younger -- no, make that 130 years younger. And Mr. Meadows was right about texture: this wine was alive and joyous, almost thrusting itself out of the glass. I thought of horse carts, canals and steam engines. Pas mal, as the French say -- not a bad little chardonnay. And it got even better over time. What was it served with? I seem to remember chicken in cream sauce. It didn't much matter.
Next came the reds, culminating in one bottled in 1865:
Where I was simply dazzled by the 1846, the 1865 conjured up a feeling of respect and awe. We were tasting a legacy, transmitted long after its makers had died and conveying emotions that might have been inconceivable back then. At a moment like that, I had no doubt that winemaking can rise to the level of an art.

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